Abuse of Position Power is Not Limited to Bullies: Beware the Fear Factor

Last week while working with a group of mid-level managers the topic of “What’s OK to say in the workplace?” came up, as it frequently does these days when managers get into conversations about interacting with their reports. After a few minutes of dialogue we reached a consensus that despite much of the counsel provided in harassment training you can still probably say just about anything to anybody depending on whether or not the relationship you have provides sufficient context to hold the comment. I recognize that saying this may raise the hair on some HR professionals’ necks but I am not a big fan of making policy that punishes or constrains the many because of the indiscretions of the few.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to addressing the issue of workplace harassment. Despite all the policies, harassment training etc.; I believe we still step over the most fundamental and powerful aspect of the employee/manager relationship, that it is based on an implicit power imbalance. This fact has a costly (immeasurable) and invisible impact on employee engagement and it is frequently ignored, especially when it is in the manager’s interest to do so.

Are there bullies (harassers) in the workplace? You bet there are and they should be dealt with in decisive, not tentative fashion. As I was reading a piece by Chris Iliades  titled ‘How to Deal with Adult Bullies’ I noted my own blood begin to simmer with recollections of experiences I had as a youth with “the big kids” who thought that being big meant they could get away with tormenting the smaller younger children. Perhaps like you I have been disappointed to find similar behavior taking place in the workplace, often on the part of people who know they have the advantage of position power. Unfortunately this is life in the workplace and I am hopeful that as companies become more enlightened as well as sensitive to public embarrassment many of these folks will find their way out of our lives.

But even as we work to eliminate the bullies and the sexual harassers a certain level of unconsciousness continues to pervade the ranks of managers. When it comes to the negative impact simple position power yielded thoughtlessly can have I find many managers don’t want to be held to account.;

‘Office Space’ may be the quintessential motion picture depiction of the negative impact of the unchecked boss/employee power imbalance. The boss, Bill Lumbergh, shown here at right is addressing Peter Gibbons, on the left, the story’s protagonist. He is obvious in his understanding that his position allows him a certain amount of leverage when it comes to infringing on his report’s personal time, he’s big on last minute requests for Peter and others to work weekends. Eventually this and other unchecked abuses of managerial power and simple disrespect catch up with Lumbergh in the form of an epiphany Peter has about the choice he has to simply not return to work.. The events that follow this realization are what have made “Office Space’ a cult classic right down to the bobble head dolls of several of the film’s main characters that can frequently be found in employee’s cubicles.

Employees find ways to deal with the Bill Lumberghs in their workplaces, eventually sabotage of one form or another will take these characters down. Lumbergh knowingly abused his power; we might even say he was a soft spoken bully. What concerns me most are the unconscious actions of managers who otherwise have the respect of their reports. In these instances the manager has created a line of credit with the reports based on mutual understanding and mutual respect. However, and this is what makes the behavior so insidious, from time to time requests are made by these same managers that are an imposition on the personal time or commitments of their reports and the assent that occurs often reflects a passive conceding, without expressed doubts or objections rather than an engaged acceptance.  I see these occurrences as costly in the long run and one of the contributing behaviors that are not reflected in the separation interviews.

  • Where do you suspect you may have been getting “yes’s” to requests when what you really been getting are an acquiescence to your position power. Maybe it’s time to have some of those conversations before the costs become prohibitive.

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